Vazante, set in Brazil’s rugged Diamantina Mountain region in 1821, depicts the fraught relationships and ethnic differences between a rich Portuguese drover and landowner, his adolescent white bride, his long-time slaves of African origin, and newly imported African slaves.
The interactions between the main characters are depicted intimately by Daniela Thomas, hitherto best known as a director partner of Walter Salles, but her first solo feature has a sweeping quality. It has the aura of a foundation myth—at times beautiful, at time squalid.
That is partly down to to the unexpected black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Eschewing the lush verdancy of most films shot in Brazil, Vazante’s austere look emphasizes the remoteness and harshness of the setting. There’s nothing romantic about the tyrannically run community on screen, or the way it haphazardly turns into a kind of microcosmic melting pot doomed to fail yet simultaneously fated to lay the foundations for modern Brazilian society.
Inspired by an episode in Thomas’s family lore, Vazante initially follows the fortunes of António (Adriano Carvalho), the imperious but lazy drover and slave-owner, whose ranch and farm are going to rack and ruin. Upon the death of António’s first wife in childbirth, he rides into the country and collapses.
A good deed ignored
Not knowing where António is, his brother-in-law Batholomeu (Roberto Audio) sets out to sell António’s ill-treated and disgruntled new African slaves, but they rebel and flee. Their ebullient leader (Toumany Kouyaté) stumbles on António lying in the grass and brings him home to the ranch. It makes no difference to his standing—he’s soon been manacled again by António’s vicious black overseer.
António soon marries Batholomeu’s precocious youngest daughter, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), but because she’s yet to get her period, he resumes having sex with one of his slaves, the proud and contemptuous Feliciana (Jai Baptista).
During António’s long absences buying and selling cattle, the lonely Beatriz seeks comfort from his senile mother-in-law Dona Zizinha (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha) and strikes up a tender friendship with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), a boy her own age. On their rambles, they find the corpse of the film’s most principled character, who has escaped from the ranch.
Beatriz and Virgilio’s relationship is innocent, in contrast to her oppressive marriage, but hormones are raging, and the stage is thus set for an appalling outburst of violence. Its cause and context is decadent colonialism, specifically António’s refusal to regard the slaves as anything other than beasts.
Thomas’s storytelling is elliptical—though much less so than that of the Argentinian director Lucretia Martel in Zama, another stunning film (and scheduled to open in April)—about ruinous imperialistic practices in South America.
Thomas’s refusal to spoon feed exposition to the audience suits the notion that the characters in the film are seldom aware what the others are doing, whether they are traveling in the wilds or isolated on the ranch. It also smooths the switch in perspective as Beatriz takes over from António as the protagonist.
Her emergence—most powerfully in the film’s last few seconds—is central to Thomas’s feminist agenda. Kouyaté’s stubborn but doomed slave leader aside, the subjugated women in Vazante are its heroes—Antonio’s spiky black housekeeper Joana (Geísa Costa), the stoical Feliciana, even Dona Zizinha—convey a self-contained seraphic quality. However, it is Beatriz who, as madness claims António in the end, serenely holds Brazil’s future as a miscegenated society in her hands.
Vazante is screening at IFC Center in Manhattan.